Sign language can swell the meaning of music and prayer

By Janet Stevens / The Bulletin


Published Oct 18, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

I’m not a big music lover. I don’t hate it, but it seldom is my first choice in entertainment or background sound. There is one genre, though, if that’s the proper term, that I love.

Signed by an interpreter for the deaf, music becomes a whole new, and for me completely engaging, experience. And, luckily for me, a woman in my church signs regularly from her pew.

Ginger Sanders has lived in Bend for just about 11 years, moving here from San Diego in 2002. It’s safe to say the quiet life is not for her. She’s a glass blower, photographer, writer, donkey aficionado, outdoorswoman — you name it.

She’s also the mother of a young woman, Cassie Sanders, who has a profound hearing loss. It’s that which led Ginger Sanders into the world of sign language.

She and her daughter began signing in church when the latter was young, Sanders says. It’s a practice she continues today, though her daughter, now grown, is no longer sitting beside her. Though she is signing at her seat and for herself, she says she knows at least a few members of the congregation are watching.

Signing, Sanders says, is like praying twice, and I think I understand what she means. When we speak — or sing or pray — we use our voices, and, perhaps, minor gestures or facial expressions.

When Sanders prays and signs simultaneously, it’s a full-body affair. She’s involved completely, from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. There’s movement, expression and voice, all at once, each element enhancing the others. It’s the difference between describing a baseball game and playing baseball.

Add all that to music, and it becomes an experience involving not just hearing but sight and physical sensation far transcending simple listening.

My first exposure to signed music came at the Lilith Fair concert tour’s stop in Portland in about 1999. My daughter, her friend and her mother, and I sat near a group of about 30 who were accompanied by a young man who signed as various bands and individual performers played.

The concert was held on a hot summer afternoon in a baseball park, and the audience stamped its feet in time to the music, setting the stands vibrating. If the group near us could not hear the words of the singers, they clearly could feel the music — it was coming up through the bottoms of their feet and their backsides — and they just as clearly were enjoying every minute of it.

Though Sanders once thought she might become a signing Santa, her use of the language in church is a far cry from that of a rock concert. She signs from the pew, and she likes it that way. As she puts it, if she errs in the pew, only she and God will know; if she makes a mistake in front of the congregation, that’s a different story.

Then there’s this, she says. She doesn’t want to distract other people in church, and she fears being in the front of the room might do just that. She doesn’t want to be The Ginger Show just below the altar, she says.

That’s understandable. It’s difficult not to watch someone signing along with a spoken or sung message, and if you believe worship is ultimately a private affair, watching someone sign could very well be distracting.

In church, Sanders uses pieces of two sign languages — there are as many as 300 of them, each with its own specific grammar — Signing Exact English and American Sign Language. Some words are readily understandable — “son” is a tip of the cap and a rocking baby — others, not so much.

Though I cannot understand every word, Sanders and her signing are a wonderful enhancement of a ritual I’ve known since childhood. Even with spoken words, her signing is a kind of music in its own right.